New Delhi: After six rounds of the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup, India and South Africa have emerged as the best teams by occupying the first two spots on the points table and are comfortably poised to enter the semifinals.
Hosts India have been unbeaten in the competition through their dominating all-round performances while South Africa, barring the loss to Netherlands, have been at their absolute best with bat and ball.
When India take on South Africa at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata on November 5, one can expect fireworks from both teams in what is expected to be a blockbuster clash.
Former South Africa skipper Graeme Smith, currently serving as the SA20 commissioner, spoke to IANS about South Africa’s form in the tournament and how India’s bowling can pose a huge challenge to the Proteas.
Q. Could you share your views on the performance of South Africa till now in the tournament?
A. I'm so happy, as like everyone, I've probably had a slightly lower expectation going into the World Cup. But the top players have performed really well and the other players have really stepped up when given the opportunities. To know that they've pretty much qualified for a semi-final is a terrific place to be.
There are three big games left in the round-robin, Afghanistan, New Zealand and obviously the big one against India as well. But South Africa look like they're gonna be in the semi-finals and that's going to be huge. I'm hoping for South Africa-India final - if I had to put a dream wish down, that would be it.
Q. What do you think is the biggest standout point for South Africa from a batting perspective in the tournament?
A. Let's start with Quinton (de Kock), I think he's having his best ICC tournament probably in his career; it's been terrific to watch. He started the tournament well and his confidence looks good. After the top of the order gets off to a good start, South Africa's got probably one of the most destructive middle orders ever, like look at (Aiden) Markram at four, (Heinrich) Klassen at five, and (David) Miller at six.
Then you've got the all-around capabilities of Marco Jansen at seven. So, they've been really dynamic in this tournament. So, after the platform is set, those three to four players can really hurt the opposition teams. They've got incredible power to score shots all over the ground and they become very difficult to bowl to, so that's certainly the kind of powerhouse of this South African team.
Then you need the bowlers to contribute as well. I think Rabada and Maharaj are having a good tournament, as well as Ngidi and Shamsi being able to contribute. The next period is going to be crunch time and you hope that those big players keep playing well.
Q. In the absence of Anrich Nortje and Sisanda Magala, Gerald Coetzee has stood up to be a potent fast-bowling option alongside Rabada, Ngidi and Jansen. How do you assess his performance so far?
A. I love his attitude. He's still a young man, and he loves the contest. You can see that about him; he loves getting into it. I mean, Nortje is definitely missed. But Coetzee stepped into the fold and Ngidi has done well too.
The performance of those two around along with Shamsi, Jansen, Rabada and Maharaj is going to help South Africa in them being able to match up with the other teams. Semi-final will have high-quality teams, and my prediction is that you're gonna see India, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, as they have been really outstanding in the tournament.
Q. Talking about India, what do you feel will be the biggest challenge coming for South Africa from a side which is on an unbeaten run in the competition?
A. Playing India in India is always a huge challenge. Rohit and Virat have obviously played really well in the tournament so far and that's going to be an area that they're going to have to talk about how they control those two.
I've been saying that the bowling attack of India has wicket-takers everywhere. They've got two outstanding spinners and three outstanding fast-bowlers. That's going to be the biggest challenge for South Africa as Rohit has got really great assets to use.
What we have seen in the World Cup has been high scores and big hundreds. But India have the capability in the bowling attack to control teams and I think that's one of their biggest assets.
Q. South Africa had contrasting results while chasing twice in the competition - losing to Netherlands and then edging Pakistan by one wicket in a humdinger. Where do you think chasing totals has become hard for South Africa?
A. No, I don't think so. I mean, the game against Netherlands was just a terrible performance from start to finish for South Africa, and not just the chasing. In Chennai, it was going to be a test for South Africa chasing against Pakistan.
Chennai has always been slightly slower – like fielding in that heat, then you have to go and get the total. I think that was an important win for South Africa on a number of levels and that will give them a lot of confidence.
To me, there's no reason why they can't be good at batting first or second. It's the same quality group of players and as the tournament goes on, they will settle and find that experiences from that victory the other night will really give them a lot of confidence. So I'm not too worried about it.
Obviously, they'll have discussions internally about how they want to go about it. But I love the way they're playing with freedom, even when they're under pressure and don't look tense. It’s about maintaining that now as the tournament crunch time comes.
Q. Very recently, South Africa won their fourth Men’s Rugby World Cup title in France. Do you believe the Proteas will be taking massive inspiration from the Springboks triumph and try to do an encore of it in this World Cup?
A. Sport in South Africa is going mad at the moment with the Springboks win this week. They are arriving home on Tuesday and it's going to be nuts. I expect that euphoria to go into cricket. Now, with the big contest coming up, like the India game on the fifth of November and South Africa has pretty much qualified for the semi-finals.
So, over the next two or three weeks, hopefully that euphoria will go into the Proteas and they will perform well. I guess the key now is, can the South African team match the rugby team to go on and win a World Cup? That'd be I guess everyone's dream come true.
Sports in South Africa continues to play above itself on the world stage and that's the incredible thing. A rugby team showed resilience to the world and hopefully that'll motivate this group of players as they get into this tough time in the tournament now to really play their best.